By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 27, 2002
For six months, Jeff Gordon managed to stay in the hunt for a fifth Winston Cup championship despite not winning a race.
Now, look out.
Gordon's victory Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway not only ended a 31-race winless streak, but could give the No. 24 Chevrolet team the spark it needs to finish the season strong. With that elusive first win out of the way, more likely will follow.
"As far as the championship, I think it serves notice to a lot of people that we're not out of it, don't count us out," said Gordon, who moved leader Rusty Wallace out of the way with three laps left for his 59th career victory.
"I'm not saying that now we're going to run away with it. We've still got a lot of hard work ahead of us. This is just a great step in the right direction. It's going to do so much for the team morale, and sometimes morale and attitude can take you up several notches performance-wise."
With 12 races left, Gordon is third in the standings, 111 points behind leader Sterling Marlin. It has been 10 years since anyone overtook the leader in the second half of the season, but winning the night race at Bristol is a dandy start.
Several times this season, Gordon appeared to have cars good enough to win, but something always happened. In March at Bristol, he spun while leading. On the road course in Sonoma, Calif., he broke a gear. Those days, he said, were hardest to take as pressure to win mounted.
"I don't think the losing streak was wearing on me as much as missed opportunities or not being able to capitalize on some good cars that we've had," he said. "I know if we're in the top four or five every week, we're going to win races. And we had not put ourselves in that position. That got frustrating."
Gordon played the role of cheerleader, assuring his team that a win would come soon if everyone remained confident and continued to work hard. Had the crew become disheartened, the results could have been worse.
Now, after winning, the team has every reason to believe -- and smile.
"We're really excited about going to Darlington," Gordon said.
Yep, look out.
STAY TUNED: Bristol's .533-mile track more than met its quota for lost tempers. As bad feelings fester, keep an eye on these guys in the coming weeks.
His car a mangled wreck, Ward Burton hurled the heat shields from his shoes at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s window net. Robby Gordon got a two-lap penalty from NASCAR and the "You're No. 1" sign from Jimmie Johnson after wrecking the rookie on a restart. And Kyle Petty, angry that leader Jeff Gordon would not let him back on the lead lap, chased Gordon up the track in Turn 1.
Think all will be forgiven by Sunday?
BLADE RUNNER: Robbie Loomis, who left Petty Enterprises to become Jeff Gordon's crew chief, tried to smooth things over with his former employer by sending a note to Petty's pit. Loomis was relieved to get a reply.
"I love the Pettys to death, and they didn't understand why we weren't giving them the lap back," Loomis said. "I'd go over there and mow their grass if they called me to help make up for it. They sent a note back saying they understood he was trying to protect his lead."
CONSPIRACY THEORY: Robby Gordon was mystified that, of all the drivers who caused spins Saturday night, he was the only one penalized. Gordon, who claimed Johnson missed a gear on a restart, was assessed a stop-and-go penalty that cost him two laps.
"I haven't seen that done in a long time," said Gordon, informed of the penalty by team owner Richard Childress. "How many other guys spun out guys? None of them got two-lap penalties. I don't get it."